What to do on the Sabbath
OT Reading: Is.2:1-5
If we were asked the question: "Why do people go to church?" we could probably come up with quite a list – some of the reasons would be spiritual and some much more mundane.
We could say that some people go in order to worship God or to learn more about him. We might add that these go to encourage and be encouraged.
We might suggest that others go because they've always gone or because they're expected to go if not forced to go.
Yet others might go simply in order to get out of the house for a couple of hours.
I wonder which answer would mostly closely fit our own situation.
In the Bible passage I read a little earlier Luke tells us about another Sabbath day and on it Jesus as well as many others went to the meeting place of the church of the day, the synagogue. Why were they there?
Who was in the synagogue that day?
Luke gives us information about a variety of people – two individuals and a group.
If we were to sum up in one sentence why Jesus was in the synagogue that Sabbath day we could do so by saying that he was there to do good and he would seek to do that good in at least three ways:
- he was there to teach
- he was there to interact with others and try to help them see what a godly life really was like
- he was there to heal a man who was handicapped because one of his hands, his right hand, was withered up and useless .
Some Scribes and Pharisees:
They were there to criticise the preacher who was to preach for them that day. Although it was still early in Jesus' public ministry they had already made up their minds about him and the conclusion they had come to was not a positive one. Their minds weren't focused on learning about God all they were interested in was finding a pretext for accusing him.
Now it is a good thing to come with the intention of not being duped by what is taught and we must listen attentively holding onto that which is in accord with God's Word while rejecting anything and everything which isn't. Sadly, this group of men wasn't there to weigh up the value of Jesus' teaching they were only interested in picking holes in it and in criticising him.
If Jesus was present to teach this group certainly wasn't present in order to be taught. It wouldn't be long before their thoughts were wandering and their eyes wandered too – they looked around the congregation and they saw that the man with the withered hand was there. And their minds began to work overtime – what would Jesus do?
The Man with the Withered Hand
Luke doesn't tell us anything about just why this man was present and all we can do is hazard a guess. Maybe he was there because he always went; maybe he was interested to hear what this man Jesus had to say - after all he was causing quite a stir wherever he went and that would surely have caused many to want to hear him; or maybe he was hoping to healed…
The simple fact is that we don't know why he was there just as we don't know others apart from ourselves are here this morning. But God knows! God knew all about him and he knows all about you too. He knows the disposition of your heart, your thoughts, he knows all about your needs too.
Jesus was present to do good that day – he was willing to help them all but only some were willing while others were not. The handicapped man would be helped but the others because of the hardness of their hearts went away in a worse state than when they arrived. Who will you be most like when you leave at the end of our time together? O, friend, don't harden your heart against the Lord Jesus Christ and shut him out of your life – you will only be the loser if you do.
When Jesus taught he didn't do anything other than teach the Word of God. He wasn't out to be an innovator but one who faithfully passed on what his Heavenly Father had given him. This however did not mean that he was boring - when the Word of God is taught properly it can never be that and Jesus certainly knew how to teach it properly. How the crowds loved to listen to him because he was so clear, so easy to follow and so interesting!
At the same time Jesus didn't duck the important issues of the day. When he encountered error he refuted it being quite prepared to go against the flow as it were – he was earnest in his desire to see men illuminated by the light that comes from God's word.
And when people took the time to reflect upon what Jesus said they found that his teaching was penetrating; it went to the heart of the matter and took that matter to their heart.
His teaching was living and active, it was sharper than any two-edged sword and it pierced to the very division of soul and of spirit, and it exposed the thoughts and intentions of their heart. Under his teaching men knew that they could not hide, but were naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom they had to give account.
After a short interview Jesus had with one lady in which he carefully guided the conversation the lady went away so struck by the encounter that she said to all who would listen to her:
"Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did." (Jn.4:29)
Now Jesus, this most electrifying of all preachers, was teaching in the synagogue and he realised that his message was not being given the attention it merited. A preacher can often tell if he's lost his congregation – there are a multitude of tell tale signs that give you away! And Jesus was no ordinary preacher he knew that something was wrong and he knew what it was!
Had he seen the man with his withered hand earlier or was his attention drwan to this man as the scribes and Pharisees whispered and nodded and pointed in his direction? I guess we will never know but we do know that Jesus took decisive action. The atmosphere was being contaminated by wrong thinking and hostile attitudes and Jesus was determined to flush things out into the open and address the matter.
To do good or to do harm?
Turning to the man with the withered hand Jesus told to come and stand beside him – there the man would be clearly visible to all and there his physical handicap could not be hidden.
I wonder how you would have felt at that moment if it had been you called to the front. Some of us are happy to be in the limelight but others shun it as much as possible – there was cost involved for this man. Nevertheless he responded and stood by Jesus.
Is this going to be the moment the scribes and Pharisees have been waiting for? They're not the slightest bit interested in this man's well-being but maybe maybe this is the moment they'll have an excuse to attack and accuse Jesus. They are eager and expectant now – they actually want Jesus to do something that they think is indefensible for then they'll have him. How twisted we humans can be!
But Jesus doesn't immediately do anything, he simply asks a question.
But oh the penetrating power of Jesus' words!
v.9 "I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?"
The scribes and the Pharisees have imagined that it is they who can sit in judgment over Jesus but how wrong they are! His words go to the heart of the matter and the tables are turned in an instant and the hardness of their hearts is now being exposed. Is there any compassion to be found in their hearts for this man who has had to endure life without the use of his right hand? Well if there is then now is the time to show it. What will they say and how will they respond?
The sad and simple answer is they won't. They have no compassion to express but they know that will evident to all if they give an answer. Their thinking you see was completely wrong about the Sabbath and what it was really all about but and this is the really dreadful thing they weren't prepared to admit it, they weren't about to let this upstart preacher from Nazareth change them.
It really is a tragic situation. There they are in the presence of the teacher of teachers who is showing them a better way, the true way, and yet they will have none of it. They could open themselves to the truth and receive it after all it is the Saviour of the Word who is standing before them and he had come amongst other things to save the lost sheep of the house of Israel! How readily he would have accepted them!
Jesus wasn't, and isn't, in the business of scoring religious or theological points; he is in the salvation business. Men and women will only be ready to benefit from the salvation he offers when they are made aware of failures and shortcomings in their lives. Jesus teaching and challenging questions were designed to expose error and to call for a radical change of orientation and outlook in the lives of his hearers.
The religious language that describes the way in which such change will come about is repentance. Repentance for the scribes and Pharisees would have involved something of a climbdown for them that day and it is the same for all of us. We don't naturally like to admit we're wrong but this is an integral part of repentance.
I wonder has Jesus highlighted areas in your life where your thoughts have been wrong and where your attitudes have been wrong. If he has then don't try to face Jesus down as the scribes and Pharisees did; don't hang on to your old ways and go on shutting Jesus out of your life – you will be the loser if you do and what a waste you will make of your life! Jesus is able to do you good – much as he was about to do good to the handicapped man in the account – do you want him to?
Before we go on with the healing of this particular man I must say something more about repentance and the crucial place it occupies in the life of a Christian. It is crucial because without it we never even begin to live the Christian life.
You see none of us is born into the world right with God. We don't progress through life on a gentle slope that will end with us somehow adding Jesus to our lives. The gentle slope we begin life on is in fact tilted in the other direction – not only are we born hostile towards to God we show that our hostility is growing with each and every wrong thought we entertain and wrong deed we perform. There simply is no way we can add Jesus onto a life that is headed in the wrong direction away from God! There must be a change of direction and that is where repentance and conversion come in. If you know nothing of this then what reason do you have for considering yourself a Christian? Repentance and faith are not optional extras they are an essential part of becoming a Christian.
Jesus breaks the silence
Jesus had asked his challenging incisive questions – but no-one was prepared to speak in reply. So Jesus continued in charge of the situation.
In their accounts of this episode Matthew and Mark add their own details but Luke is content to simply record what happened next and it was extraordinary.
v.10 "And after looking around at them all (Jesus) said to him, "Stretch out your hand." And he did so, and his hand was restored."
Do you see what is so extraordinary about this short command that Jesus issues? It tells the man to do the very thing that he would love to do but of which he has been totally incapable up to this point in time! It was impossible!
You might feel that it is similarly impossible for you to do the very thing that you are commanded to do ie. to repent and to put your trust in Jesus Christ. Maybe you'd love to do it but how?
Well, my friend, the man with the withered hand was able to stretch it out and be healed because there was power in the Word of God – God gave the ability to do what he commanded. He was not healed by his own efforts and you won't be saved by yours but the call of God to trust his son is all the warrant you need to cry out to him in faith and in trust!
What a day it was for that man, had he ever known a Sabbath like it? He had seen Jesus. He had heard him teach. He had been told to do the impossible and was enabled to do it and was healed!
It was one more day on which Jesus confirmed his authority by an act of mighty sovereign power. The miracle confirmed the justness of his teaching that it was and is right to do good on the Sabbath.
Wouldn't it be lovely to end there and say that it was a lovely Sabbath for everyone concerned – but it wasn't.
You know that some people like to say that they will only believe if they see a miracle with their own eyes – in effect they want God to perform for them, they want him to dance to their tune and then, they say, they'll deign to believe in him.
But do you not see that there was a group of men present that Sabbath day who saw a miracle with their own eyes and yet they did not believe. Indeed this group of men were convinced beforehand that Jesus could heal – they were fearful that he would! And when he healed with a word of sovereign power they saw it, they knew it and they could not explain it away. But still they would not believe.
In actual fact we find that this miracle actually makes them more and not less hostile towards Jesus Christ – their rejection of him flies in the face of the available evidence, yet they will not have him. And these men end the day in a worse state than the one in which they began it. Do you see that?
At the start of the day they thought of themselves as moral and upright, they were men concerned for the keeping of God's law but just look at them now.
Is it lawful to react with such fury and hatred that they begin to conspire how they might have done with Jesus – they plotting to have him killed! As the gospel record unfolds it becomes increasingly evident that Jesus' enemies were not going to allow the niceties of the law hinder their desire to do away with this man. They will try to trick him, they will subvert the course of justice employing witnesses they know to be false, and they will have redress to kangaroo courts in their desire to silence this man. They will end by condemning an innocent man to die.
And it need not have been that way. Jesus stood as it were holding out his arms to welcome returning rebels just as the LORD God in the OT stood holding out his arms to his rebellious people there. Some time later Jesus would cry out:
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!"
The reluctance to save is not to be found in Jesus but in men and women who "will not".
What remains for me to say except to ask you:
"Will you come to Jesus and allow him to gather you?"
Don't go on and on holding Jesus off. The more you do the harder your heart may become until you too pass the point of no return. Come and come now to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith and Jesus will do poor sinners good!